The puffs and extruded snacks category has moved beyond just cheese puffs—pork rinds, baby puffs, and vegan options are now in play.


Market data

According to IRI (Chicago) data from the past 52 weeks, which ended on September 5, 2021, the salty snacks category as a whole is up 5.3 percent, with $29 million in sales.

In the “Other Salted Snacks (No Nuts)” subcategory, which overall brought in $6 billion in sales, Frito Lay brought in $4 billion in sales, with a healthy increase of 15 percent. General Mills brought in $403 million in sales, with a .6 percent increase, and The Hain Celestial Group brought in $250 million, with a 9.3 percent jump in sales. Funyuns increased its sales by a modest 7.1 percent, and Pirate Brands was up by 8.9 percent.

The “Cheese Snacks” subcategory, bringing in $3.1 billion in sales, was up by 4.9 percent overall. Frito Lay was again the winner here, with $2.45 billion in sales and a 3.1 percent increase, and Kellogg brought in $168 million in sales with a large 36.4 percent increase. The Cheetos brand brought in $2 billion sales alone, with a 2.2 percent increase, and Utz Quality Foods brought in $94 million, despite a small 4.3 percent dip in sales from last year.

In the “Corn Snacks (No Tortilla Chips)” subcategory, the subcategory itself brought in $1.446 billion in sales, with a 7.1 percent increase, and Frito Lay brought in $1.084 billion, up 3.3 percent. BFY Brands showed an astonishing 80.8 percent increase in sales, bringing in $127 million overall, mostly thanks to its Popcorners brand. The Fritos brand also brought in $548 million and its Fritos Scoops brand brought in $281 million, along with $178 million from Fritos Flavor Twists.

In the growing Pork Rinds category, which is up 1.7 percent with sales of $604 million, Macs Snacks was responsible for $119 million in sales, with a generous 13.7 percent increase, and Frito Lay brought in $101 million. Golden Flake Snack Foods Inc. brought in $71 million, with a 5.8 percent uptick in sales. Others to watch include Rudolph Foods Co., maker of Southern Recipe Pork Rinds, which brought in $35 million but had an increase of 9.0 percent in sales, as well as private label brands, which brought in $59.5 million in sales.  


Next-generation trends

“Mindless snacking is out—people are looking for foods that have a functional health benefit and are also convenient and can be eaten on-the-go, especially when it comes to food for kids,” says J. J. Jaxon, co-founder, Mission MightyMe, Atlanta.

“We launched Mission MightyMe because parents (like us) were looking for easy ways to follow new food allergy prevention guidelines for introducing common food allergens like peanuts, early. But new parents are also incredibly busy, so we prioritized making nutritious, functional foods that were also convenient. I think brands that can tap into both trends will see significant growth,” Jaxon advises.

Popularity of puffs for children and babies are definitely on the rise—in May 2021, Puffworks released Almond Butter Puffs, specifically formulated for infants, which are softer, low in sodium, and contain no added sugar. In addition, in February 2021, LesserEvil launched its Organic Lil' Puffs line for toddlers, which includes four better-for-you, plant-based flavors filled with protein, fruits, and veggies.

Courtney LeDrew, senior marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, says that, historically, extruded snacks were the domain of cheese balls, puffed Cheetos, and similar indulgent snacks. Then brands expanded their horizons with extruded vegetable offerings, leveraging the natural health halo associated with puffed and extruded snacks, she says.

“Now, we’re beginning to see the next generation of these better-for-you snacks, with brands infusing products with superfoods, prebiotics, and other functional benefits. With this latest wave of health-forward offerings, brands are bringing the same functional benefits more traditionally associated with the snack bar space,” LeDrew notes.

“In that same vein, there’s innovation around novel, plant-based ingredients, too. While the early extruded veggie snacks often relied on garden-favorites like spinach and cauliflower, entrants today are branching out with mung bean and other more niche plant ingredients. It’s very similar to what we’re seeing in other parts of the food and beverage landscape, as consumers begin to embrace less familiar plant proteins,” LeDrew explains.

“Bold flavors are also making waves. Consumers are hungry for new sensory experiences, and brands are responding with some exciting offerings. They’re turning up the heat with ever-more spicy flavors and enticing consumers with unusual, and sometimes limited-time-only, sweet and savory flavor pairings,” says LeDrew.

Frito-Lay provides a good example of bold moves in the market: in May 2021, it released Doritos Xxtra Flamin' Hot Nacho chips and Cheetos Flamin' Hot Spicy Pepper Puffs, for its “Flamin’ Hot Faceoff” campaign.

“Finally, nostalgia and comfort foods remain trendy—but often, manufacturers are giving these old favorites a modern twist. As one example, you’ll find extensions of familiar cereal brands and favorite childhood flavors moving into the extruded snack space via crunchy cereal crisps,” says LeDrew.

John Powers, marketing director, snacking and baked goods, ADM, Chicago, agrees that spicy snacks are popular this year. “Heightened uncertainty during the pandemic prompted many people look to food, especially snacks, as a coping strategy during times of anxiety and stress. Eating has a perceived ability to affect mood and emotions, and certain flavors can evoke positive memories that provide comfort. Shoppers are choosing classic flavors like salted caramel, peppermint mocha, apple pie, cheddar cheese, dill pickle, ranch, and buffalo sauce. Consumers also crave spicy, bold flavors like Nashville hot, jerk, chipotle, black pepper and mango habanero. On top of that, many people wish to travel through their taste buds, so global flavors like baharat, amba, za’atar, harissa, and chile de árbol are gaining traction,” he notes.

The rise in snacking presents tension between consumers’ need for nutrition and the solace of indulgence. Yet these desires don’t have to be at odds—each can support holistic wellness, Powers says. “Research indicates 61 percent of global consumers are more conscious of the need to lead a healthier lifestyle due to COVID-19, and 48 percent are more aware of their mental well-being. Brands have the opportunity to address consumer demands in a single snack offering, for better-for-you appeal,” he adds.

Charlie Kauffman, senior product specialist, PerkinElmer, Inc., Waltham, MA, also sees a balanced approach toward nutrition coming to the forefront. “One of the things we’re seeing product development groups work on with increasing frequency is the creation of higher protein and higher fiber snacks with a traditional look and flavor profile—healthier foods that aren’t marketed as health foods,” he says.

Carly Rain Adams, research and development manager, LC America, Inc., Colfax, NC, says that consumers are raising the bar for heathy snacks. “We are seeing demands for nutrient-packed snack foods. Specifically, we see snack foods trending towards higher protein and more fiber. Importantly, we see increased interest in bold flavors. As a manufacturer we tackle these trends in tandem, as they go hand-in-hand. Consumers will not sacrifice texture and flavor for higher nutrient profiles,” she comments.  


Growth opportunities

Powers says that puffed and extruded snacks are bursting with opportunities for innovation. “Formulators are meeting consumer demand for enhanced sustenance and nutrition with incorporation of ingredients like dietary fiber and postbiotics for microbiome support, as well as natural sweeteners that help reduce sugar and calories. Fiber is the number one ingredient consumers are seeking to add to their diets for reasons like weight management, heart health, and gut health,” he says.  

“In a joint venture with Matsutani LLC, we developed Fibersol prebiotic fiber, which can be used in virtually any application with minimal formulation or processing adjustments, and it can reduce sugar by as much as 25 percent in low-calorie bakery and snack products,” says Powers. “Our research shows 57 percent of consumers shopping for functional foods believe sugar reduction is important.”

Adams says that although 90 percent of their current pellets go on to be deep-fried, hot air expansion offers great opportunity for market growth. “Another opportunity for growth is snack food for foodservice. The flexibility pellets offer, in terms of flavor versatility and logistics (low moisture, ambient temperature, neutral base, long shelf life), make them the perfect foundation for this new platform.”

Kauffman recommends reformulating or creating new products that introduce highly functional, very nutritious ingredients like resistant starch flour or pulse ingredients like peas, chickpeas, lentils, and beans. “This can add protein and functionality, in the case of pulse ingredients, and resistant starch flours reduce the amount of easily digestible starch/sugars in a product because the body treats them a bit like dietary fiber,” he notes.

For brand manufacturers, in terms of innovation, Jaxon recommends e-commerce. “Our biggest near-term opportunity is to thoughtfully and strategically increase our number of distribution channels, based on where our customers spend time and shop. E-commerce works very well for our brand and product, and e-com comes in many forms now. We see new e-com platforms as an opportunity and also traditional retailers who are expanding their e-com options.”


Upcoming products, ingredients

Jaxon says that Mission MightyMe will be launching Nut Butter Puffs in 2022. “We are thrilled to be launching our new pediatric, allergist-developed Nut Butter Puffs in 2022. They will be the first-ever baby-friendly puffs that contain peanuts and tree nuts. The latest USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend introducing common food allergens like nuts, as soon as babies start other solid foods.

However, nuts are a choking hazard and the baby food industry is still mostly allergen-free,” he elaborates.  

“We’re excited to provide parents with an easy and enjoyable way to follow the new recommendations for food allergy prevention. As a food allergy family, this is the exact product we wished we’d had when our own children were babies,” Jaxon adds.  

Adams says LC America focused on sustainability in 2021, with the incorporation of reclaimed ingredients, such as sweet potato and dried cranberry powder, from juice production. “2022 is forecasting to be an exciting year for new product development. We anticipate the launch of our animal-free/vegan ‘pork rinds.’ These pellets pack bold umami flavor with nutritional benefits from mushrooms and legumes instead of animal protein,” she notes.

On the ingredients side, LeDrew says that while taste will always be the key driver for snack sales, other factors—including clean label considerations—carry weight in the marketplace. “This is especially true with extruded snacks aiming for a better-for-you positioning. Cargill’s new SimPure soluble rice flour gives formulators another tool in the quest for easy-to-understand labels. It serves as a label-friendly alternative to maltodextrin, which is often used a flavor carrier and in seasoning mixes. Unlike traditional rice flours, Cargill’s SimPure offering is highly soluble, enabling one-to-one replacement with 10 DE maltodextrin,” she says.  

Jordan Timm, food technical services and applications leader, Cargill Salt, says that earlier in 2021, Cargill Salt introduced Purified Sea Salt Flour, which is a unique type of sodium chloride, sifted to the smallest and finest granulations of sea salt crystals. “This ultra-fine cut adheres better to food, resulting in less fall-off, less salt waste, and a more consistent flavor—all critical factors in topical snack applications. In addition, the fine particles also provide a faster salty flavor burst by increasing the rate of dissolution in the mouth. This increased perception of saltiness may enable a reduction in sodium and helps enhance other flavors,” she says.

“Other benefits of the new Sea Salt Flour include enhanced blendability, which results in a more consistent distribution of flavor and color and minimizes pockets of salty bursts. The powder-like product improves texture, too, as the ultra-fine cut crystals deliver a smooth, even consistency for an undetected presence in food,” Timm expands. “Not only does Cargill Salt’s Sea Salt Flour deliver a superior performance, but it also has a compelling story. It’s harvested authentically with the power of the sun, wind, and time in at the company’s solar salt ponds in the San Francisco Bay. It’s also extremely pure, averaging approximately 99.9 percent NaCl,” she says.  

Powers says that during 2021, ADM rebranded its portfolio of wholesome nutritional ingredients as NutriStem and launched MaxFlex powdered plant protein blends. “MaxFlex includes nutritionally enhanced protein blends that provide superior protein quality, functionality and optionality beyond soy. We’re seeing growth in new product development that satisfies an increase in consumer interest for more nutrient-dense and diverse bases that deliver better-for-you benefits and great taste. These ingredients allow manufacturers to attract consumers seeking alternatives to traditional fried or high-sodium snacks with options that are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” he says.

“In our MaxFlex blends we combine pea, wheat, and rice proteins to improve nutrition, ingredient diversity and functionality in a variety of baked goods and snacks. Furthermore, beans, pulses, ancient grains, and seeds provide plant-based, clean-label appeal to many consumers,” Powers notes.

Botanicals are another close-to-nature ingredient that are increasingly popular, says Powers. “Snack and bakery brands seeking an enhanced health halo might incorporate on-trend botanicals that consumers associate with well-being, like guarana and natural energy, ginger and kombucha and digestive wellness and lavender or chamomile and relaxation. Additionally, berry, citrus, and mint, as well as green tea, elderflower, yerba mate, and more, are health-signaling ingredients that can easily be baked into puffed and extruded snacks.”